Anarchy in 18th Century India

“The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire”, by William Dalrymple, ISBN 978-1-63557-395-4, 522 pages, (2019)

The author sets out to tell the story of arguably the first muti-national corporation. This book is apparently the result of a six-year long deep dive into English & Indian records about the East India Company – and it makes a fascinating (if lengthy) tale. Just how did a group of English investors end up running a sub-continent and contributing the Jewel in the Crown to the Empire on Which the Sun Never Set? The history involves a vast array of characters; the author devotes 10 pages simply to detailing the principal individuals.

Established by Royal Charter in 1600, the commercial aim of the East India Company was to import valuable spices in exchange for European products. This involved sailing around Africa, and crossing the Indian Ocean to trade with the Spice Islands (modern day Indonesia). But the Dutch had got there first, and drove the English out. The EIC decided to fall back to India and instead trade there for fine Indian textiles. After lengthy negotiations with the then all-powerful Mughal Empire, the EIC was eventually given permission to establish trading stations in the 1620s.

The Mughal Empire which had ruled India for about two centuries was probably then the richest & most powerful society in the world. Its enormous armies kept the EIC and other Europeans firmly in check. But after Persians invaded the Empire and pillaged Delhi 1732, India began to fragment into warring states, leaving it exposed to European exploitation. The EIC began a program of divide & conquer.

In the days of sail, it took the better part of a year for persons & messages to travel between Europe and India. Consequently, much depended on whom the EIC Directors in London chose to send to India. In 1755, they dispatched the future Clive of India, not long before an Indian warlord stormed Calcutta and threw a number of Europeans into the infamous Black Hole. At the end of 1756, Clive reached Calcutta and took back the city. Then he learned that England was now at war with France in what became the Seven Years War. Although nominally an employee of the EIC rather than a British army officer, Clive marched against the French in their trading stations and defeated them too.

The author details the following half century of very nasty complicated warring between various Indian potentates, while the EIC and its officers played one against the other and enriched themselves on the backs of Indian peasants.

But it was not just the Indians who fought with each other – the English in India were hardly united. Relations between one of the directors of the EIC and Governor General Warren Hastings got so bad they fought a duel. The director was wounded, and returned to England to stir up trouble for Hastings. This led to the impeachment of Hastings in 1788 on charges of corruption, in a long legal process that lasted until he was finally acquitted in 1795. By that time the EIC had achieved total dominance in India. A mere 600 company employees ran the country – along with 155,000 Indian soldiers.

However, Hastings’ impeachment had resulted in the British public becoming more aware of the brutality & rapaciousness of the EIC’s rule in India, which ultimately led to Parliament restricting the EIC’s operations in 1833. In 1857, the EIC’s private army revolted in what Indians know as the First War of Independence and the English call the Indian Mutiny. The British put down that uprising in a very bloody fashion. Queen Victoria subsequently nationalized the EIC, effectively ending its existence after about 250 years.

While the author is clearly sympathetic to the Indian side, especially to the poor peasants misused by English & Indian rulers alike, it has to be noted that most of the violence & mistreatment of Indians was at the hands of other Indians. This should be no surprise – European history has mostly been about the violence of Europeans towards other Europeans.